For the better part of a decade, the Saw series was a dream franchise for horror aficionados and studio bean counters. Seven commercially successful installments were pumped out between 2004 and 2010, delivering the signature happy-go-lucky product: a range of grotesque booby traps that kill victims in monstrous ways, such as a reverse bear trap attached to a person’s head.
The most interesting thing about the Saw films – as the eighth installment in the series, Jigsaw, from Australian directors Michael and Peter Spierig, reminds us – is the physical absence of a villain during key death scenes. That is not to ignore the abominable genius of Mr. Jigsaw himself, the maniac designing all these terrible devices, with accompanying riddles and mind games to offer his victims a slim chance of survival.
At the moment of impact, however, Jigsaw is nowhere to be seen. This gives the Saw films a curious distinction to other blood-soaked horror films involving serial killers, in that at the time of the murders there is nobody holding a knife or, I don’t know, waving a chainsaw. The victims are up against the elements, confronting situations where the odds of survival are stacked against them.
In this sense the Saw franchise is similar to another horror series, which concluded after five installments in 2011, one year after the release of Saw VII: the Final Destination movies. Horror franchises are notorious for being milked to death (so to speak) and then restarted. So perhaps new Final Destination movies are inevitable. But when will that be? I am surprised to find myself saying: I miss the series and want it back. At their nadir these films were cruddy guilty pleasures. At their peak they were disgustingly inventive, hinged on a terrific core premise.
Each Final Destination begins with a spectacular large-scale death scene in which numerous (predominantly young and attractive) people die in terrible ways. A plane crashes, for example, or vehicles pile up on a freeway, or a bridge collapses, or a roller-coaster malfunctions.
These accidents lead to gruesome outcomes. When the roller-coaster malfunctions (in Final Destination 3) Kevin (Ryan Merriman) gets stuck on a broken piece of his seat and is sliced in half by a support beam jutting above the tracks. When the bridge gives way (in Final Destination 5) one character gets thrown off it and falls onto the top of a yacht’s mast, which spears her body like a skewer through a piece of meat.
These scenes turn out to be premonitions played out in the minds of a rotisserie of protagonists. They invariably freak out and warn other people. These people run away and the envisioned accident goes ahead. They have thus ‘cheated death’, and death finds subsequent ways to even the books. This leads to the franchise’s trademark moments: freaky ‘accidents’ during which a combination of variables causes things to go horribly, horribly wrong.
These moments play out like MacGyver escape plans, but reversed. Instead of a person cleverly using elements at hand to extricate themselves from dangerous situations, an unseen force (death) uses these things against them in various, often ridiculous ways. A combination of a screw on a balance beam, a live wire and knocked over bowl of powder, for example, causes gymnast Candice Hooper (Ellen Wroe, again in FD 5) to violently contort her body mid-air, so that when she falls she breaks her spine and instantly dies.
A Gallows humour guessing game eventuates about the cause of death for each character, with a recurring punchline that it is sometimes none of the obvious choices. In Final Destination 2, Evan (David Paetkau) gets his hand stuck in his kitchen sink drain. While trying to extinguish a fire in his frying pan, he then accidentally sets fire to his apartment, which explodes (yes: that escalated). Evan escapes and runs outside, only to slip on spaghetti and get impaled by an escape ladder that falls onto his face. As you do.
Black comedy – the blackest of black – notwithstanding, there is something genuinely unsettling at the core of the Final Destination films: the idea, or even the knowledge, that virtually anything can kill us at virtually any time. This is quite different to a Leatherface or Michael Myers style killer. These people/monsters/cretin can be apprehended and locked behind bars. Even shape-shifting forces like Freddy Krueger or Pennywise can be defeated. But the Final Destination movies tell us that, as in life, something will always get us in the end. Delay death: sure. Beat it: not a chance.
Part of the reason I long for more Final Destination films stems from a degree of disappointment with the existing ones. Despite such a great premise, none of the five installments smashed it out of the park. There were finely directed moments, such as the freeway pile-up in Final Destination 2: a savvy and suspenseful stretch of film. A gruesomely effective swimming pool death, in Final Destination 4 (confusingly titled The Final Destination) is also quite something, cut together with an elaborate, car wash-set fake-out and presumably inspired by author Chuck Palahniuk’s infamous short story Guts.
But when I contemplate the best of the series, my mind plucks bits and pieces from various installments – not one excellent, cohesive whole. This is why we need another Final Destination movie (or movies, plural, at least until we get one that’s great). On the question of who could helm it, perhaps we can return to the Saw franchise and the Spierig Brothers. While consensus seems to be that they did a same-old same-old job with Jigsaw, keeping the franchise alive without adding anything new or interesting, that same criticism does not necessarily apply to the rest of their work.
Exhibit A: the Spierigs’ 2003 zombie movie Undead. This film is entirely worth it for one (fabulous) line of dialogue: “In my day, we respected our parents, we didn’t fuckin’ eat ’em!”. Exhibit B: Daybreakers, a vampire flick based in a world where shots of blood are sold at cafes. And Exhibit C: Predestination, a curly time travel story that proposes the most outrageous answer imaginable to the question “what would happen if I time traveled and bumped into myself?”
In summary: the Spierig Brothers should bring Final Destination back. Memo to Hollywood: make it happen.